Sunday, January 23, 2011

An Open Letter to the Jews of Shomron and Yehudah

I wrote this open letter in late November, 2009, just prior to the ten month Settlement Freeze. Some things have changed since then, a few for the better; most haven't. In the past year, I've learned much about the settlements that I, even as someone long committed, in deed, to pro-Israel advocacy, had previously not concerned myself with. To me, the settlements were an intellectual and political abstraction, despite my having visited some of them several years ago. In the last year, the abstraction has given way to reality, and with not a moment to spare. Today, I believe, after much introspection, that preserving Jewish communities in the West Bank is vital to Jewish sovereignty and security in the Levant. I'm posting this letter here for myself, as much as for you, the reader. Many of the important questions I once asked, I am now knowledgeable enough to answer, and in coming posts, am prepared to do so. This open letter is sort of personal benchmark, and I hope you can find some value in it as well.

The following is an open letter to the Jews of Judea and Samaria. It was inspired by my growing concern at their near complete demonization, first in the Israeli media and now worldwide. Very few Jews in the Diaspora have been to the settlements, and surprisingly few Israeli Jews; life there is perceived as dangerous, the living conditions barren and primitive, the people fanatics. While the vast majority of interested parties are today focused on negotiations over the status and building in large settlement blocks - which the vast majority also acknowledge will remain in Israel, seemingly negating the rationale for such negotiations - dozens of smaller Jewish communities that exist beyond these settlement blocks are expected to be forcibly evacuated in any final settlement with the Palestinians.

I have friends in the "good" settlements - Elkanah, East Jerusalem - and none in the "bad", but this I now intend to change. This open letter was not written to convince American Jews to support Jewish settlement of Judea and Samaria, or to advance the usual Israel-Palestine political arguments, but to engage in a dialogue with tens of thousands of Jews spread across a hundred hilltops, whose determination and vision I admire, to offer my support and to engage on a constructive way forward.

To the Jews of Judea and Samaria,

I am an American Jew. I don't live in the settlements, but support the growth of peaceful Jewish settlement of Judea and Samaria. I am often stunned by how terrible the image of Jewish settlers in the liberated territories is, as reported by the Israeli media; and what is acceptable to the Israeli media is immediately parroted by world media. What's worse is that the Jews of the territories allow the Israeli elite to run propaganda circles around them and expect a miracle to save them from further ethnic cleansing, much less international isolation, economic blockade or worse.

The settlers associations need to understand how terrible their image is in the West. People are so saturated with propaganda here that it is acceptable for most people to believe that the Jewish settlers are crazy fanatics shooting Palestinians left and right and stealing land every day.

At the same time, you shouldn't view this as a hopeless cause! Think of it as an opportunity. The negative image of Jewish settlers has greatly exceeded the reality on the ground. Once the truth is exposed opinion will shift sharply towards a more balanced reality. This won't happen, however, unless that truth is presented, and presented with sensitivity.

If the residents of Shomron and Yehudah want to be taken seriously in Israel, much less the world, they need to start planning seriously. Furthermore, the fruits of this planning cannot reside in some office cabinet in Modi'in Illit, but must be presented, at least in part, to open review and analysis. In helping this process along, I have three main suggestions.

1) Develop a pragmatic political program

Establish clear leadership which can develop a sustainable political program, and express it in a language that is acceptable to most people, in Israel, in the West, even in Arab countries. Right now, no one in the West actually knows what Jewish settlers want! Do you want to drag Israel into annexing the territories? If so, what do we do with the Arabs? Throwing them out is not going to happen. Jordan is not Palestine. We have to stop whining about what could have been and what should have been and deal with these issues like adults. Alternatively, if the Palestinian state is set up, will you accept Arab sovereignty? Can you dissociate Zionism and Settlement? What is the plan? None has been articulated. The entire settler political program is in a big smoke screen of confusion, sauteed in a fair bit of corruption and the occasional rhetorical outburst, allowing opponents to say what they want about you. There is seemingly no vision being articulated by your present leadership - just stubbornness to achieve short term objectives which are not, by themselves, sustainable. This failure to articulate a coherent, sustainable vision is the most immediate impediment to long term growth of your communities.

2) Find a way to deal with the Arabs

You're there and you should know it better than anyone else: The Palestinians are not going anywhere. There need to be serious efforts on the part of the settler leadership to normalize relations between Jewish communities and nearby Arab villages, to whatever extent possible. Stop relying on the Israeli government to do this. YOU are the ones living 200 meters away from Arabs and YOU have to deal with them every day. I understand you are busy living your own lives and growing your communities, but how is it possible to ignore your neighbors just a stone's throw away? Find an interpreter, sit down with them and talk. You will need to deal with them one way or another - either through cooperation and coexistence or through violence. In the medium and long term, this engagement is unavoidable. There need to be mechanisms set up to share infrastructure, cooperate on development, deal with hooligans and incitement - whether by Jews or Arabs - etc. The Arabs will not love you tomorrow, that we know. However, they will accept a firm but fair Jewish presence over time, especially if they have no other choice. There is a right way to do this.

3) Stand up for your legitimate rights

Let's deal with first things first. There are many Jewish settlements built on private land purchased from Palestinians that are routinely threatened with demolition and evacuation, like Havat Gilad (Gilad Farm). When there are overwhelming and conclusive claims of land ownership, such threats are unacceptable and must be dealt with. You can't allow the global media to call Havat Gilad an "illegal outpost" for ten years, and expect someone in France or Spain or Chicago to think it's not.

There needs to be a database of land ownership established by the settler organizations cataloging their claims to every private purchase of Palestinian lands. Scan the documents into PDF, add supporting photos, video, etc. and put the claims and all evidence online for everyone to see. Otherwise it's the word of some "crazy religious settler on a hilltop" versus a seasoned Haaretz correspondent or any Arab that claims otherwise.

Second, yes, there are Jewish settlements built on private Arab land. We all know it. If there is just ONE suggestion I can give to the settlers, it is that "the Bible told me to do it" is not a valid argument for taking other people's property. No one in the world accepts this argument, so STOP SAYING THAT TO NEWS MEDIA! Yes, I understand, G-d gave us this land. Yes, the land is holy. So why don't we just go into Palestinian homes and take their children as slaves? Obviously there are limits. Moshiach is not here, the Palestinians are, and we need to deal with them as human beings. They are somewhere on a scale from reasonable to stubborn to murderous, I understand, but someone has to think their way out of this paper bag.

Stealing private land is the wrong choice, especially today, when Jews around the world are willing to give money to purchase Palestinian land in a legal way. One of the key instruments of regaining moral legitimacy must be to catalog all settlements (and parts of settlements) that are on stolen Arab land and offer some sort of compensation to the Arab families. This doesn't need to be (and shouldn't be) a public or political process. A serious leadership could approach those families privately, make it clear that the settlement is not going anywhere and that all they will get is compensation, but deal with it somehow.

Third, why is it that an Arab who gets beaten up by the IDF in Balata can pick up the phone and have B'tselem taking pictures of his bruises and giving statements to Haaretz an hour later, but settlers who are abused by the Border Guards or whose crops are torched by Palestinian arsonists just accept their punishment like animals? Justice only works for Palestinians? You have rights, so protect them, wisely. Start taking pictures, videos, collecting testimonies and publicly naming and shaming the border guards, police, IDF and Arabs who are abusive. Collect the reports of abuse in an honest and serious way and send them to news organizations and Jewish Diaspora groups. Learn how to mobilize public support in Israel and around the world to ensure that your rights as human beings are respected.

This is just a sample of ideas that need to be part of this conversation, and it is a conversation we need to have. Relying on the Israeli government to save you is not the answer. How many billions will America need to give (or how many threats will it need to make) before Netanyahu or Livni or Barak force you from your homes, G-d forbid? You're not alone. There are Jews like me, in Israel and the Diaspora, who are willing to help, financially and otherwise, hopefully even make aliyah and join you. The Jewish settlements in the liberated territories face many challenges. Let's grow up and deal with them honestly, as Jews.

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